Becky Stark, whose beautiful voice is at the center of L.A. country-pop-chamber-folkies Lavender Diamond, has something she wants to say. Actually, she has a lot she wants to say. A lot about love and the world and peace. A lot of it she says through her lyrics on the band’s Matador debut, Imagine Our Love. A lot of it she says to her audiences between songs when the band plays live. And a lot of it she says in the following interview. A lot about the state of the world, mankind, and understanding. Oh, and also some more on being inspired by Juice Newton, working with indie-art It girl Miranda July, making a video with Sia, and just what the heck a Lavender Diamond is.
You had a solo album out under your own name before Lavender Diamond formed. It seems very hard to scour up, though. Any tips for your fans who might want to dig it up?
I was under the impression that it exists somewhere in cyberspace. I’ve never taken music off the Internet, but doesn’t everything exist out there? Or, people could write to me and I’d send them a copy.
Why didn’t you continue along the solo route? Or, do you have plans to continue creating music on your own?
After making that solo album, I came to a really clear moment of inspiration of wanting to make a country-pop record. I really wanted to hear more music that was really full and strong, which the music I was making by myself wasn’t. So I just got really excited about making country music like Linda Rondstadt or Juice Newton that you used to hear more of, music with a body and a presence. But I actually just did a solo show for the first time in a long time last night, which was odd after having the big sound of the band behind me for a while.
Is it just you and a guitar when you perform solo?
Yeah. I’ve written lots and lots of songs that I sing by myself that I play, and I play songs off the solo album. I do plan to record those new songs and put them out, but I wonder if anyone would enjoy them. They’re very raw, very different from the band’s sound.
How did you get together with the other members of Lavender Diamond?
I was doing a lot of performing on my own and with other people. “Lavender Diamond” was actually a stage persona I came up with. Can I tell you about the history of that character?
I got an idea for this story about a stone. It came from the old tales of how some of the first caves were discovered when people heard a beautiful sound coming from the mouth of a cave. So they went inside the cave and found a gorgeous, dazzling full diamond that had never been seen or touched before. So a guy in this cave finds this lavender diamond, which he takes, but that silences the resonance of the cave. Hundreds of years later, the stone has become a ring on a medieval lady’s finger. She loves to sing, and one day she’s singing when a magpie swoops down and tries to steal it, which makes the lady fall off a balcony and die. The magpie gets buried with the stone in its mouth under a tree, and the stone gets tangled up in the roots of the tree. Hundreds of years later there’s a songbird living in the tree named Lavender Diamond. It becomes entranced with a woman named the Lady of the Indoors who likes to dance around in her apartment, and they live happily ever after. I took that character and started making little plays about it. I would perform as a half bird/half human who was an emissary of peace.
But back to how the band got together. I had so many songs I was writing in a lot of different styles, like classical and Tin Pan Alley. And I was playing with a lot of different people. I actually performed with Elvis Perkins for a while. Ron [Rege, Lavender Diamond’s drummer] and I started a band together with just voice and drums. Jeff [Rosenberg, the band’s original guitarist] and I started playing country songs together. And Steve [Gregoropoulos, the band’s pianist] and I were playing the classical songs together. So I had the idea we should all get together as a band. None of them were interested at first, but then when we got together and played it was magical.
Can you tell me why Jeff decided to leave the band after recording Imagine Our Love?
Our schedule is so demanding and Jeff has a young child, so he wasn’t wanting to miss out on his time with his family. It was really sad when Jeff realized that he couldn’t play in the band anymore, because we all had formed a crucible.
How did you hook up with the current guitarist, Devin Williams?
We had about a week before we were scheduled to play a show in L.A. at the REDCAT. We really thought we might have to cancel the show. So I said a prayer and went to meditation and a name came to me that was kind of like “David” or “Devendra.” I realized it was “Devin,” but I didn’t know anybody by that name. Then a friend came to me and wrote down the names of a bunch of talented guitarists that he knew, and the first one he wrote down was Devin. I listened to Devin’s music and it was really beautiful. I realized I knew him from the same circles in L.A. So I called Steve and told him the story about Devin, and it turned out that Steve had written the orchestral arrangements on Devin’s record. It’s kind of amazing that we found Devin, and he’s perfect. I guess it just goes to show that there are so many great musicians in the world.
The band garnered a lot of good buzz with the Cavalry of Light EP that you released on your own in 2005. What was the process like of getting together with a label? Were labels coming to you or were you approaching labels?
I was approaching it like finding true love. It was similar to how we found each other or how we found Devin. I said a prayer that I would find people who would want to work with our idealism and love and inspiration. I kept thinking, “I know there has to be someone in the world who would be a perfect partner in bringing this music into the world.” I feel like we were really lucky, but we were also very clear in our intentions. It was kind of mysterious. We went to South by Southwest a couple of years ago with the hopes that we would find the perfect label, because we were looking for a labels the way people look for a soul mate. At the last of the four shows we played, we played outdoors at like eleven in the morning in a tent, and it was raining. There were maybe five or six people there. But one of them was Jeff Travis, who is the head of Rough Trade. He came up to me after the concert and told me he loved our music, asked what we were doing later in the afternoon and if we wanted to make a record. He really shared our vision of wanting to get the music out.
You’re about to start a tour and play at a lot of rock clubs. Are there any special plans for translating your show to those clubs? Can we expect more wailing guitar solos?
No, our music is going to sound the same — no real wailing guitar solos. We’d love to move into playing more spaces like the REDCAT — more museums, art spaces, and concert halls. I love playing in an actual music concert hall.
You employ a lot of onstage banter between songs at concerts. Do you think of things you want to say beforehand, or is it all off the cuff?
I might think about stories I want to tell or topics I want to talk about, but it’s mostly off the cuff. I should craft it a little bit more since I probably talk too much. It feels natural for me to want to talk with the audience. Playing a concert is such a great opportunity to have an experience with a room full of people. I saw Patty Smith in concert in England last year, and she would talk with people in a way that was so simple. I thought it as nice of her to talk with everyone.
Have you had any bad experiences with people yelling at you to get back to the music?
When we were playing with the Decemberists there were one or two times like that, because there were huge audiences and no one had really heard our music before. And we had a funny experience at a concert in New York when we were opening for Deerhoof at the North Six. At every concert we start by celebrating peace coming to planet Earth. Everybody usually cheers, and it fells good to just unabashedly be joyful. When I said that at that show, it was dead silence. One guy actually booed, and then people started shouting, “What about all the wars?” And, “What about all the poverty?” I had to explain that I was talking about peace right there in that room, not necessarily peace everywhere on Earth.
How did you hook up with Sia to direct the video for “Open Your Heart?”
The same way we make all our decisions, which is by feeling and instinct. Sia wrote to us that she had an idea for the video and sent us a treatment, and the energy and the idea were so purely silly and joyful that I immediately felt it would be the right match. And then I met her and she’s so fun and funny and outrageous. When we were making the video it was so much fun. We shot it here in L.A. and Sia had the idea for me to be on roller skates, but I’m not that good at roller skating, which is probably painfully obvious if you’ve seen the video. Sia promised me there would be flat streets to skate on, but that was a big lie. I fell down like a hundred times. I told Sia that at the end of the video I just wanted to dance, because I love to dance. I choreographed that dance at the end of the video.
Any plans to make more videos for songs off the album?
It’s my plan to make a video for all the songs on the album since I loved making that first video so much. Have you seen the Feist video for her song “1234?” Sia showed that to me and it’s so amazing. I want to dance more next time we make a video, but I’m not wearing skates again.
You’ve been putting on live appearances with Miranda July. Are there any plans for her to direct upcoming videos of yours?
It’s funny, I told Miranda that I had an idea for a video that I wanted her to direct. And she told me, “If it’s your idea you should direct it, and if I have an idea I’ll direct it.” I’m not sure if she could fit us into her time schedule
What are the band’s plans after finishing up this tour?
I think we’ll have to tour through the fall, too. I haven’t really thought past that. But we’re really excited to make new songs and new records. I always have a lot of songs, so I’m excited to make another record even though this one just came out. There are also some classical story operas that I’ve been working on with Steve that we want to stage at places like the Hammer and the REDCAT.
Do you have any plans to work with anyone in the L.A. community? I know you have a side project with Inara George and Eleni Mandell.
Yeah, it’s called the Living Sisters. We’re going to make a record, I don’t know exactly when, but I think we’re going to be able to make it happen in the fall. And I would love to do something with Astrid Quay of Winter Flowers.
And Lavender Diamond has a song on the upcoming “freak folk” Madonna tribute album. Which song are you doing?
We’re doing “Like a Prayer.” We had a debate over whether to do that or “Where’s the Party.” We haven’t recorded it yet, but I’m really excited because to me Madonna is the ultimate folk musician. Her songs are the ones I learned as a child and sang with my family.
Your great voice is definitely the centerpiece of Lavender Diamond. Do you do anything special to keep your voice in shape?
Not really. I feel like the more I use my voice the stronger it gets. There’s a saying in the Tao Ching that says, “He who shouts all day, his voice doesn’t get horse.” My voice is an expression of and a connection to an intimate source of strength. The more I share my voice the stronger it gets. One’s voice isn’t objectively located in their throat. It’s an impulse of consciousness, an infinite field. I know my voice to be the sound of my body and my identity, just like everyone’s own voice is their identity, their name, their color. The more that I’m connected with people and places when I’m singing, the more I can be an open channel for sound. It gets back to how I experience singing as a really ecstatic experience. So before I sing and before we play I center myself in the intention to share a joyful experience and bring love into the place, and my voice gets stronger from that intention. Singing is physical but it’s also psychic and spiritual. I also have to take care of my body, since that’s my instrument. I have to be very conscious of the health and balance of my body, and I find the best way to do that is to stay connected with the world and with people. It’s funny to think that the physical would be so tied into the psychic and the mental, but for me it is. If I’m not connected to all of that and not focused, then it’s almost as if my voice doesn’t exist.
I guess I don’t do the things that classical singers do to protect their voice. I just love talking, as is probably obvious. I did lose my voice after we made the record, and that was really weird. I couldn’t talk for five days, and that was really scary.
Well thanks for your time.
I know I’ve said a lot, but can I just say one more thing?
I just want to say that I also think it’s very important for people to recognize the fact that when they think they can’t make a difference, that thinking is completely false. It’s like still thinking the world is flat. If people are operating under the assumption that they don’t have any power and that their life has no meaning, they have to wake up from that. It’s just a simple shift in understanding that could make a new reality. It’s not wishful thinking. I think that’s what makes life a beautiful experience. That’s like the juice. Each one of us has something beautiful to give, and you find what you have to give by finding out what you love. And then you give it and it puts you right in the stream of life. It’s a paradox that what you have is what you have to give.
When we start to wake up to how much we all mean to each other, and to the richness in our communities, I think that the world begins to easily yet powerfully take a new shape. I feel privileged to be part of that transformation, which is really just a simple shift. I think that now is an exciting time. With our music we have the chance to share energy and be part of transforming the energy of the world.